I recently had my first experience with “beta readers.” This term, derived from the beta testing used in software development, refers to inviting friends or acquaintances as “average readers” to give you informal initial comments and feedback about your book
With a client’s approval, I asked a dozen acquaintances if they’d be willing to read the opening three chapters of his novel. They were all game, so I invited them to pretend that the pages were a published book and to consider the following questions:
- Would you want to read more? Why or why not?
- Was there anything that you especially liked?
- Was there anything that bothered you?
The feedback was both positive and surprising. On the positive side, most readers found that the story development in the opening pages intrigued them enough that they wanted to read more. Others singled out the dialogue, descriptions, and development of the character relationships.
Although some issues were mentioned by only one or two readers, we also found broad consensus around two essential areas where we’d had no idea that we’d been “reading between our own lines” — filling in gaps in our own mind’s eye because we’d been living with the story so long.
Just two examples:
- About half of the readers were puzzled by the relationship between the two main characters in the first few opening pages. At first, we in turn were puzzled by their reaction (but then, we’d been living with those characters for months). How did we resolve this? It turned out that adding just one word made the relationship clear.
- A bigger challenge, and one we know we’ll continue to revisit, was the consensus that the crucial opening pages contained too much description and other material instead of quickly moving ahead with developing the storyline. So we deleted a prologue and tightened the opening scene, but we also anticipate more surgery down the road.
The Downside of Too Much Imagination
How does “reading between your own lines” happen? Perhaps because our imaginations are so powerful. Some writers have told me that they become so absorbed in the fictional world they’re creating that they feel they’re watching it in their head like a movie.
They may even feel that they just need to keep watching it and writing what they’re seeing — a totally immersive “seeing/writing” experience in which they have the freedom to record and shape any and all aspects of their story: scenes, narration, dialogue, dreams, emotions, interior monologues, and whatever else comes to them in this process. However, this kind of unconscious process can also lead to problems in these and other areas.
This is where beta readers can be so valuable, especially in the early stages of writing. And Later on, critique groups and writing groups can offer more professional-level feedback.
My author and I are grateful to all the readers who made us aware that we were reading between our own lines. They’ll more than deserve our acknowledgments when the novel is published.
To learn more about beta readers and how to find and work with them, check out these useful resources:
- 5 Things You Should Know About Working With Beta Readers
- What You Need to Know About Working With Beta Readers
- Beta Reader Questionnaire
- Beta Readers: Who, When, Why, and So What?
(NOTE: Publishing consultant Jane Friedman’s website offers many other valuable resources. For example, when your book is complete, you may want to look at her post on “Key Book Publishing Paths 2018,” an infographic that describes traditional and nontraditional publishing avenues, including who the players are, what kinds of authors they publish, how to approach them, their value to writers, and what to watch out for—all on one page. For easier reading, the content is also listed in text form.)